Pianist / Composer / Conductor
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Born in Helsinki on 7 June 1967,
Olli Mustonen took his first harpsichord lessons at the age of five and
was taught to play the piano by Ralf Gothóni
at the age of seven. A year later he made his first
composition attempts, and from 1975 studied composition with Einojuhani Rautavaara.
Soon, Mustonen was much sought after,
both as a conductor and as a concert pianist (studies with Eero
Since 1989, Mustonen has been playing an active role in the musical
scene of his home country; first, he became artistic director of the
Korsholm Music Festival and from 1990-1992 of the Turku Music Festival
as well. He is co-founder and director of the Helsinki Festival
Orchestra, and since 2003 has been conducting the chamber orchestra
As a pianist, Mustonen has given concerts with numerous major
international orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the
Royal Concertgebouw Orkest, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin
Philharmonics, and others. In addition, he maintains close working
relations with renowned conductors such as Daniel Barenboim,
Boulez and Christoph
Eschenbach. In 1999, he performed the world
première of Rodion
Concerto No. 5, which is dedicated to him, with Esa-Pekka
Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. [See photo below.] For his
recording of 24 Preludes and Fugues
Shostakovich and 25 Preludes
by Charles-Valentin Alkan, Mustonen received both the Edison Award and
the Gramophone Award in 1992.
Mustonen’s predilection for contrapuntally interwoven compositions and
works of the 20th century which take up ideas from the 17th and 18th
centuries (e.g. the Bach arrangements by Ferruccio Busoni and the
cycles of preludes and fugues by Paul Hindemith or Shostakovich), is
reflected in his own works as well. The concentration on
instrumentation and rhythm as well as the use of genre names such as Gavotte, Toccata or Petite Suite are points in favour
of this affinity. Mustonen's works attain their individuality through
their fresh tonal language rooted in the sonority of the music of his
While it is the pianist who is to the fore in the concert halls
throughout the world, it is the conducting and composing activities of
Mustonen from Hausjärvi (Finland) which are becoming of growing
interest to the public. As both, a composer and an interpreter, he is
"artist in residence" at the Usedom Music Festival in October 2005.
-- Biography (text only)
from the Schott Music website
-- Links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my websites.
It is interesting to follow the careers of artists, and
particularly in my case, those with whom I have shared a conversation
or two. This is especially fascinating when the meeting takes
place very early in the musician’s
I met Olli Mustonen in May of 1991, when he was about to turn 24 years
old. Already a seasoned performer and a recognized composer, and
the years that followed have only increased his stature in both areas.
He came to Chicago in several seasons for both solo recitals and
concerto appearances with the Chicago Symphony.
Here is that very early interview . . . . .
Are you a composer who plays piano, or a pianist who
Well, I think I’m both. It’s very difficult
to say. Both are as important for me.
BD: Then how
do you juggle both activities?
OM: Have you
seen the film The Great Dictator?
I remember what impressed me a
lot was how this dictator planned his time so carefully that he had
this kind of minute schedule. When he was
waiting for somebody, he went for two minutes to be as a model for a
sculpture; then he played the piano for fifteen seconds.
Unfortunately I’m not that efficient. I’m a little bit more
mortal than these dictators, so I really have to concentrate on one
thing at one time. Actually, this
year I’m trying this new kind of system where I have something like
one-month periods when I don’t
travel, because composing takes a lot of time for me.
BD: Do you
ever wish, though, that you could call
upon the muse in ten-second or two-minute intervals?
[Laughs] Well, sometimes. When I
compose something, it’s so intense, somehow, I never get rid of
it. It follows me everywhere. Somehow, however
strained is playing these performances, it still is that
you have played a concert. Afterward it’s very
difficult to sleep, and it’s kind of you live in the echoes
of a concert. But still, you’ve played it and it’s over.
But with composing, it follows you everywhere and
you never get rid of it. I’m sure
anybody who does any sort of creative work has the same thing.
Sometimes it’s difficult to live when all these ideas haunt you
everywhere. So it’s a very intense
experience, all this composition. Even when you finish the work,
it takes a time before you somehow grow apart from it.
you’re playing one of the masterworks
of the keyboard literature, do you feel you’re a better interpreter of
that literature because you are also an active composer?
dangerous to use the word “better,” of
course, but hopefully it gives me a little bit a different
angle where I can move this music. There can be
many ways of achieving it, but at least in my case, I think it helps
that I look at the music both as a pianist and
also as a composer. It gives me maybe two
different angles from which I see the music, and like with two eyes,
you see more dimensions to a thing than with one eye. What I
would think is
worrying is sometimes for musicians who only play an
instrument — I don’t mean the great ones — that there is a danger of
much of a kind of thinking. For example, for a pianist to think
the music as a series of pressing down and lifting up black and white
keys. When I work on a piece, very often I try to
have a direct contact with the music, not only through the piano but
also just singing the music and looking and analyzing it.
being a composer help you evaluate
which pieces you will select to perform?
pianists, we are in such an unbelievably fortunate position.
are so many masterworks to play, and an endless amount of interesting
and wonderful music. So I don’t think it matters so much in
which order you play. Whatever you play, there’s always
more wonderful things to discover.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You mean you want to play everything???
OM: [With a big
smile] Well, if I live for five hundred
years.. which is, of course, what I’m trying to.
[Both laugh] Really it is impossible to
play everything, but most definitely it certainly is
one of the principles of my ideology about music
is that I’m not that interested in when or where the music was
written. Of course those are interesting things, but only
in a secondary sense of the word. For me, the most
essential things in music are these timeless elements, these abstract
elements, these elements where you can find connections between
Beethoven and Sibelius, or Bach and Schubert, or whatever. I
really couldn’t think of just specializing in one period,
or, let’s say, just playing Belgian composers of the beginning of
nineteenth century. Maybe it suits somebody, but for me it
really is not so interesting when and where the music was
written. It is interesting what it is.
BD: You find
the connection between the early masters and the more recent
masters. Is there a connection between any of these and your own
[Laughs] Well, definitely I’m the first one to
say that I am influenced by everything I have heard since I was born
single noise, a door making a noise, or cars’ noise, or
music. I was influenced positively or negatively, and I’m sure
that all of it affects me. I definitely don’t think a composer
should be only
influenced by music that has been written during his lifetime, for
example, because really, all the music is from the past,
whether it’s two days old or two hundred years old. I really
think it’s not important. What is important is that some music
doesn’t live, and some music does. For example,
if you want to think of Mozart, when he wrote his music, he
didn’t think he was writing Viennese Classical Music. If he got a
wonderful idea, he didn’t think, “I should write
this because I’m living now in this and this
century and I’m writing this kind of style.”
All of these stylistic things were the composers’
aesthetic at the time they lived. It’s easy to see
afterwards those stylistic things, but what is important
is that Mozart wrote contemporary music of his time, and for
him this music was contemporary music and not a product of a certain
period. I don’t think there is a period that produces geniuses
like Mozart automatically. These people were such
exceptions, and they were as difficult to understand for their
contemporaries as they are for us. In some ways these geniuses
have more in common with each other than with their
contemporaries very often.
So then you’re not a product of your
own time, you’re a product of all time?
[Laughs] Well, I didn’t say I’m a
BD: But with
whatever music you write.
OM: As I
said, I’m influenced
definitely by everything I have heard since I was born. It
doesn’t mean that I’m only influenced by the music that was written
during my lifetime.
BD: You used
two words in the same context, but
with a definite barrier between them — noise and
Where does noise become music?
OM: That is a
very difficult question
to answer, and it depends so much on the listener. I definitely
consider some things as being music and some things
as being noise. Really, in a way, I sometimes prefer
noise to music. If there’s a very boring piece of music,
I might not be that interested in it. But if I just
listen to traffic noise, for example, that can have amazing things
developing. If you think of traffic noise at,
let’s say, ten o’clock in the morning or two o’clock at night, it’s
completely different, and it can be much more
fascinating than boring music, for example.
[Laughs] So you’ve become an expert in types of
traffic noise around the world?
Exactly! If you have a tape of fifteen minutes of traffic noise
and you listen to that every morning for a year, then don’t listen to
it for a year and then you listen to it once
again, I’m sure you’re quite interested to hear the tape, although to
us it makes no sense musically. But definitely, since
it’s something you know, I’m sure it would be a fascinating
experience. [Laughs] It’s kind of dangerous to even think
about these things because I hear myself almost saying that
one didn’t even have to compose. One just could tape the
BD: Do you
synthesize all of the
sounds that you have in your mind, and just put them where they belong
OM: It’s very
difficult to explain in accurate terms. It’s very difficult to
explain how these
things happens. I don’t want to sound mystical or somehow
weird, but the best moments in composing — and for playing,
too, since in this sense they are very similar — are
not when I feel
something and write my own experiences down on paper. I really
don’t feel that. It’s more
like a feeling of becoming a channel for something, receiving
something and transmitting it. This doesn’t mean that one just
should sit down and wait for this so-called
inspiration to come. The best weapon to get this
inspiration is to work. It seems that there are three
segments. First of all, the material, the ideas. You very
often take them on through intuition. You can’t
explain those things. You get an idea and then you
work on it in a very intellectual way. You try to use the
brain to construct a
piece. But then there is still the third stage, which is
very important, and that is the test of whether a composition works or
not. Again, it has to be done in this way of intuition. It
can happen that you’ve worked it out
very, very cleverly as a composition, and it really should work in
whatever way you think about it. Sometimes it works, but then if
don’t feel it works, it’s no good. Then it doesn’t
work. The final judgment for a composer should always be his own
ears and his own mind.
BD: Not the
reaction of the public?
OM: Or how
much money you get. [Both laugh] I always think how nice it
would be to say that one writes these things, or plays for reasons of
giving things to other people, and definitely that
is an important part of it. I would be dishonest if I said that
was the reason why I do it. I can’t even
say it’s a selfish reason. It’s just that I have no choice.
This is what I have to do. There is an inner force that forces me
to do these things. If people like to listen to the terrible
results, I’m glad if they have such bad
taste. [Laughs] This is very good for me, and I don’t
complain if some people like the results. But whether they like
it or not, it is something I have to do.
BD: When you
get a commission, how do you
decide if you will accept the commission or turn it aside?
OM: I would
say most of my compositions
actually have been commissioned, and I find it very fascinating because
I hate it, really, when people have commissioned works for me. I
always am sure that this is going to be the last time I ever
say that I’ll write something for somebody. I always think I’ll
go crazy. But it creates a certain idea. When you have this
your diary, you know that this work is going to be performed.
Maybe you even know who is going to perform it, and where. It’s a
wonderful pressure. It’s a wonderful inspiration. Everybody
different, but for me it is a very useful thing.
BD: Do you
ever write just for you?
BD: I mean,
for your own performance?
problem is that I’m not that keen on writing for the piano. I
why. [Laughs] I find it kind of a boring instrument!
because you spend so much time with it?
suppose, yes. I love the
piano, of course, but still, it’s definitely not so that my ideas
as a composer are somehow pianistic; not at all. I’m very often
composing kind of an abstract way.
BD: Maybe you
find writing for strings or winds
or percussion refreshing.
Definitely yes. Maybe it’s
the fact that I can’t play those instruments that makes me want to
torture those people. [Laughs]
BD: You must
understand them, though?
OM: I hope
so, but sometimes one can be very inspired by certain instruments,
sounds, and sometimes music is just kind of abstract and needs to
be played on some instrument. But one should try to be
inspired by those instruments, not restricted by them. However,
the restriction can be very inspiring,
too. I find this is very often a problem with
some people writing music on synthesizers and electronic instruments,
because it can be a problem for some composers that there are no
restrictions. Whatever you think of, it’s always
possible to do and for some, I would think this creates a
problem of not having an outer discipline. So then to write for
synthesizers and this kind of electronic music,
the composer really needs a lot of discipline to be able to produce
something that works as a composition. This choice, this endless
amount of possibilities, can be very
BD: Do you
choose the possibilities, or are the
possibilities chosen for you?
Well... [Ponders a moment]
BD: Let me
reset this. When you
write something out, are you controlling where
it’s going, or does it kind of lead you along?
OM: From what
I said earlier
about these three stages, it depends which stage is going on. The
first stage is when I get these ideas, and then nobody
knows what is going on. The second stage is this very
logical, intellectual stage, and then, certainly, I know what is going
on. But somehow in the best moments of composing there
is a feeling that the work is somehow creating itself. A very
good way to explain this is to think of a gardener. The
composition is like this plant, and of course, the
gardener can help the plant by giving it water and cutting it, and all
those possible things, but then also the gardener can destroy the
plant if he doesn’t have the right technique. This is exactly how
a composition is for me. It is possible if I’m clumsy I will kill
the result, or it
can happen that I can greatly help the plant to grow. But
the end the result is, somehow it’s not from me. I, of
course, spend a lot of time with it, but I still consider that after
I’ve finished these works they don’t belong to me.
BD: Let me
say that you seem to have quite an
interesting garden growing.
talk a little bit about performing. When you come to a new city,
you’re confronted with a new
instrument. How long does it take you before you understand that
instrument under your fingers?
OM: This is
much of a question of
attitude. For a person in my profession, it would be very
dangerous to have this attitude that there’s one ideal instrument, and
then comparing all the other instruments to it. If you have one
ideal instrument, everything that is different is not
as good, and worse. That means that you will be disappointed most
of the time unless you play on that ideal
instrument. So one should have the attitude of trying to
be inspired by these different instruments, and trying to find out what
kind of treatment it needs to create the sounds you want to get.
One just has to listen and be very
open to these experiences. Very often it happens that I
just come to a place the same day I perform, and hardly can play the
at all. Fortunately, all around the world the pianos tend to
have black and white keys, which is helpful! So I just try to
with it. Sometimes it can be a wonderful experience and can be so
inspiring playing with a new instrument; sometimes not. [Laughs]
BD: Do you
adjust your technique at all for
the size of the hall, whether you’re playing in a small intimate room
or a very large arena?
really. [Laughs] I must say I’m such a selfish
person that I don’t care whether the other people hear or
not. Really though, it’s not only a question
of the size of the hall, it’s much more the question of the type of
and the type of instrument. When you are on the stage, it’s very
difficult to say what is because of
the hall and what is because of the instrument. Of course I’m
fussy about instruments, but I’m
actually even more fussy about piano chairs. It is very important
what kind of piano stool I have. In some places the piano
stools are very soft, and this really destroys my
playing because I find it is very important to get the right kind of
support from the piano stool. I know this sounds really
weird, and I shouldn’t be telling you this, because you
think I’m completely crazy, but it’s really true.
BD: Not at
all! I would think the support for the back
and the shoulders from the stool would be important.
OM: Well, yes.
It all has to do with the sound
somehow. When I play, it’s not just the fingers that
play. It’s really all of me that is there, and it has to do with
balance and everything. So if I have a stool that gives
in when you try to lean on it, it can be very
difficult. Of course one tries to get used to that, too, but
that’s the thing I’m most difficult about, actually. This gets
into very boring, technical details, but also the
height of the stool is very important. I tend to use different
heights for different music. When I play Bach, for
example, I tend to use quite low height, and then I go a little bit
higher if I play something like Rachmaninoff.
BD: Is it
that you need more
downward strength for the louder passages in Rachmaninoff?
difficult to analyze.
Again, it depends so much on the piano, but yes,
definitely, if there’s music with a lot of big chords and you need this
kind of sound, it’s not so much a question of volume, but you need the
sound that is somehow naturally big and which is not forced. You
shouldn’t do it only with strength. You
should use the weight of your body. This is more natural,
and in a way, easier to do if you are sitting higher. You can do
it also if you are sitting lower, but it depends on the music
often tell me that they feel like they
have to be in training all the time — like
athletes, because their instrument is their body. Are you in
training like an athlete, in a way?
OM: I suppose
something to do with being from a country where there is a lot of free
nature. It’s very important to me to be in
contact with the nature, and be outside and swim and do things like
that; so in that sense, yes. When we were talking before about
Bach and Rachmaninoff, I definitely don’t mean that
one should have a different approach to them. These
two composers have actually much more in
common than is thought very often. The
polyphonic thinking in Rachmaninoff is very often neglected
BD: So do you
try to bring that out, then?
OM: If you
listen to his own
playing, that’s definitely what he does. Talking about
Rachmaninoff, it’s interesting... I didn’t
even like his music very much before I heard him playing it himself on
record. I had completely the wrong impression of his music.
I had hardly ever heard anything properly. I just had this
impression that this is entertainment music, something played in
bars. This is completely stupid of me, of course, but I had
probably heard performances
that didn’t do justice to the music. When I heard him playing on
those records, it opened a completely different world for
me. I realized, of course, this is how it should be. This
is how this music should be played.
BD: Is there
a balance between an entertainment
value and an artistic achievement?
Definitely these two can be combined,
and they are combined. Of course it’s possible, especially with
some music to be wonderful music but it is not
entertaining. Sometimes music can be just so depressing in some
exactly. So that’s definitely possible. And some music can
entertaining, without maybe being so great in some ways. But
do think if some music is really entertaining, it is also definitely
great. So often when you are gloomy
and depressive making music, it’s so easy to pretend to be profound
and pretend to be deep. But if you
think about it, much of Mozart’s music, his most profound music is not
depressing at all; the same for Bach. Then some great music can
depressing, but maybe not so much in this country. But especially
from in Finland, people tend to have this attitude
that if music is very tragic, then only can it be
great. If music is happy somehow, it definitely is not so great,
and this is, I think, completely wrong. Anybody can be just
depressing and tragic, and being completely empty
at the same time, but they pretend to be profound. All these
feelings, whether it is
something that is very happy or something very depressing, can be
great or not great. It’s a question of the quality of the feeling.
kind of dancing around it, so let me
ask the question straight out. What is the purpose of music?
[Laughs] That is, of course, a
difficult question. One of the wonderful things about
music is that you can get so many things out of it in so many different
ways. Different people can get things from it on different
levels because people who are in no way familiar with
the theory of music or the other kind of intellectual side of
it can still get so much out of it. Of course, the more you know
about something, the more possibilities it
gives you. It gives you more possibilities to get these
experiences, and one should certainly be encouraged to always
look further and deeper into the music.
But even if you don’t, you can still enjoy it, at least.
made some recordings.
Do you play the same for the microphone as
you do in the concert hall for the public?
OM: Oh, yes,
definitely. Again, every
instrument and every hall is completely different, and of course every
day I’m a day older. [Laughs]
BD: So you
can project an imaginary audience into the empty studio?
OM: I was
talking about composing before, but it’s the
same thing with playing. In the best moments, I feel that I’m
saying something to the public, or making a statement of my feelings,
or something like that. I really think the best moments are when
something is going through me, somehow, and this is the
state I try to achieve every time. It can inspire
you if there’s an audience, but playing for one person or playing
for ten thousand people, or just playing for yourself, the
music is the same and the keys are in the same order. It
doesn’t matter so much.
playing piano fun?
OM: It can
be, yes. I’m ashamed to admit, it
can be. [Laughs]
[Surprised] Why are you ashamed???
I’m paid for it. [Laughs] One
shouldn’t enjoy what one is doing for a living, I suppose.
[Protesting] I do!
OM: Well, you
should be quiet, then! [Both laugh] No, I’m ashamed I’m
fortunate person. There are many people like that, but it
doesn’t change the fact that I’m really grateful for the fact that as
my profession I can do something that I would want to do
anyway. Again, it’s not really not even a question of wanting
to do something. I definitely want to compose and play the
piano, but it’s not even a question of that. It’s really that
is an inner force that forces me to do it. There’s no choice it
gives me. I really have to do this.
still very young; you’re not
yet twenty-five. Are you on the career path the way
you want to go, or are you still making adjustments?
OM: I think
every day one should be prepared as oneself if things going the way
they should be going, and is
there a way of making the life more balanced or more inspiring in some
ways. I mentioned earlier that I
now have a new system of having approximately three one-month
breaks without traveling. That is a step towards something.
At the moment I can’t imagine
definitely leaving either composing or playing. They’re both as
important for me and I definitely will do both
of them always. But I can imagine maybe at some point doing fewer
concerts. It doesn’t mean that it would be at all less
important for me; it just means that I won’t have to spend so much time
in airplanes and airports and hotels. With composing I really
need lots of time, and
really one has to arrange all these conditions as well as one
of course there are situations when I am
touring a lot, I feel there’s not enough time for composing, or if I’m
composing it might feel like I would like to play
more. But at the moment I just have to compose. So these
kind of situation one faces. But still, the advantages of doing
both are greater than the disadvantages. And again, it’s not
only a question of that. I just have no choice. I really
have to do these things.
you’re organizing a solo recital,
do you try to always include a piece of your own on the program?
OM: No, but
if it somehow suits the program, maybe
then. I do it actually quite rarely. Maybe
it’s a question of certain shyness because I really
don’t want to seem as a pushy composer who wants to force
people to listen to his works. I definitely don’t want to force
anybody to listen to my works.
BD: But you
do hope they enjoy them?
[Laughs] Well, yes, of course. That would
be very nice.
BD: Will you
be back in Chicago again?
OM: I hope so.
I’m not quite sure at the moment
what the schedule is, but I think there are some plans, yes. It’s
very nice for me; such a wonderful
hall. It’s fantastic. I’m really looking forward to working
with the orchestra. It’s such a pleasure for me.
BD: Do you
still make your home in Finland, or are
you gone a lot of the time?
official home is in Helsinki, Finland, yes. My wife is Finnish,
too, and I realized that if we didn’t live there I would not be there
very much. Most of my work is away from Finland, so I try to go
there as often as possible. Now, with this month period for
composing, it gives
me the possibilities to be there. Both my parents and my wife’s
parents have summer cottages. My wife’s family has one beside the
and my parents beside a lake. So it’s really fantastic.
BD: And here
in Chicago you’re beside a Great Lake!
true! A lot of Finnish people
actually moved to this region — especially a little bit more north, but
Great Lakes area. There is something in the scenery that
reminds us of home. There’s a need to be near water, I
think. For me, there are two
things that are most important for me in Finland, besides my
friends and family, I mean. Nature is one thing, and the
language is another. That is a very special thing. There
are only five million people who speak this strange language.
However well you can speak another language, there’s a danger of losing
BD: And it
doesn’t relate to any other language
true... well, to Estonian and
Hungarian. Estonian is quite close, actually, but Hungarian
is very distant, even though it belongs to the same language
group. There is a story, actually, where the Finns
and the Hungarians came together from the east, somewhere behind the
Ural River. There
was this sign that said “to Hungary,” and those who could read
went to Hungary and those who couldn’t ended up in Finland. So
that’s how we got selected. [Laughter] But it’s not an
Indo-European language, so
it’s very different. Even Russian and English have more in common
than Finnish and Russian, or Finnish and English.
Thank you for sharing your artistry all over the world.
OM: Thank you
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© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on May 14,
were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1992 and 1997, and on WNUR in
2003 and 2010. The transcript was made and posted on this
website early in 2014.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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